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A Look Back — The Disappearing Neighborhood Store Blues

Almost every neighborhood in the city has had a small variety store. Many of them have been converted into residences and swallowed up in the streetscapes of the area.

In researching various articles and seeing old photographs, I’ve been reminded regularly of the transitory nature of neighborhood stores.

I recall how prevalent such stores were before shopping centers and supermarkets. It seemed that every neighborhood had at least one variety store where the neighbors would congregate while they picked up a few things.

In ethnic neighborhoods, these stores were a vital link for immigrants. Here, in addition to local and ethnic food products, there were native speakers and native language newspapers. There was a strong community bond that helped the newly arrived cope in a new place. We still see this today in the many small stores that cater to our Hispanic population.

At various times in our history this has been true for all the diverse peoples in Salem. Looking back in history these stores were like little city halls for new groups, whether they were the French, Irish, Polish, Eastern European, Greek, Asian or Hispanic. If someone had a problem or question, help could usually be found here.

Since these stores were centered in the neighborhood, there was limited  interaction with the greater community except for market days when various sellers would offer products for all the City’s clientele. I recall in my youth going to the weekly Salem market, where, in addition to the usual vegetables, there was also a strong ethnic blend. Here, in addition to what I’d expect coming from an Irish background, were also such products as kielbasa, linguica, Italian vegetables and pea soup. In those days, ethic foods were not readily available in the meat and grocery stores my family frequented. The market, in addition to selling, was also an opportunity to experience local diversity and try something new.

There are still signs of this hidden neighborhood history in the shapes of some adapted buildings as well as Historical Salem placards such as the one at 100 Derby St. reminding us that this house was at one time Enoch Goodwin’s Grocery in 1854. Many others in their adaption to homes have lost that identity and are now firmly part of new streetscapes. The recent adaptation of Bik’s variety store that, for many years, catered to the Polish population has left only the shape of its former life.

The Salem French-Canadian population that increased dramatically in the late 19th and early 20th century seemed especially adept at running neighborhood stores. I recently saw a listing of some 50 Franco-American run grocery or variety stores that span the years from 1874 to the 1960s. While these stores started in the Point and Castle Hill areas, they soon spread across the city. They were so prevalent that there was even an organization of Franco-American grocers in the City.

Some specialized and eventually grew into larger stores that offered varieties of meat or other products. With the growth of supermarkets, many of these variety stores faded into memory. The ones that survive seem to be in high traffic areas able to draw customers, especially if they sell the lottery.

In this day and age where zoning and codes are strong deterrents, little stores seem to more easily disappear. When that happens, it’s as if they were never there. Inhabiting converted sheds or garages in residential areas, their demise is swallowed up in the prevailing streetscape; nothing marks their passage except for a few faded signs and our recollections.

I can recall driving down Webb street and seeing a variety store, a meat market and barbershop in the not too distant past. Today those stores are residences or garages. You’d never know they were ever there. I remember visiting a book store hidden down a driveway on North Street only to see it gone later without a trace. It was a Twilight Zone moment trying to find the shop that had disappeared.

These little pockets of history echo earlier times and, for many of us, strong childhood memories of deciding what candy or drink to buy. While most of the ethnic stores are gone, their memory and influence remains. We see it today in the underpinnings of Salem’s new found reputation as a diverse restaurant destination.

The beauty of the melting pot is around us and has resulted in our exposure and acceptance of a variety of cultures and foods. Salem, more so than most cities and towns, celebrates this ethnic identity history with a number of events throughout the year. Perhaps that will once again spill into market days with more ethnic diversity, so our youth will once again try something “different” only to find a favorite.

A special thank you to Nelson Dionne and the Club Richelieu for sharing information on the Franco-American heritage in Salem.

Nelson Dionne July 15, 2012 at 02:02 PM
One thing that led to the demise of the smaller retailer was the their inability to meet wholesaler's minimum order amounts. Whether a variety store of a small restaurant, this is a common problem now & then. Also, the tiny square footage that all too many neighborhood stores had was just not large enough to be able to carry the broad range of merchandise we now expect. For better or worse, times change. .
Antoine M. Boisvert July 15, 2012 at 04:00 PM
I remember, at about age five, being sent around the corner (from Daniels St) to Armand's (on Essex) to buy milk.
Nina Cohen July 15, 2012 at 04:04 PM
What a great look at historical change seen from an everyday perspective. Today there are many different products - too many for small stores to stock - and trucks making deliveries are too big to navigate neighborhood streets. More people eat at restaurants and less cooking takes place in the home. The percentage of average household income spent on food now is lower than ever. But lost social networks and local jobs are gone forever. Mr. Curley describes the lost social connections with a special feeling.
Cwheels July 15, 2012 at 05:39 PM
271 was also a pet store at one point.
john July 15, 2012 at 06:35 PM
Carons market on Rosylen,Ronnies on Cabot,Martys on Ocean and the one on Leech and one at Forest River
Matt Buchanan July 15, 2012 at 11:20 PM
I had heard that there was a store on Cabot St, any more info on that one?
john July 15, 2012 at 11:27 PM
Ronnies market was near the intersection of Cabot and Hancock.Coldest beer in town. Carons was on Rosylen at the intersection of Hazel and Cabot.
William J Muse July 16, 2012 at 12:42 AM
The two I remember most were from North Salem. Bill's on North St and Larry's on Balcomb. Do you buy candy on way to school or get lunch??? Hahaha
Stephen Costa July 16, 2012 at 01:10 AM
Ronnie's was awesome, but remember it being the size of a (small) walk-in closet! Mom used to send me down to pick her up cigarettes, ha (I think some other kids were sent out on beer-runs for their Dads) - the clerks all knew us and our parents. Ice cream cooler was all we were after anyway.
Charlie MacIntyre July 16, 2012 at 01:48 AM
I remember so many that used to be around....Armand's variety on Essex St, they had the best bulkie rolls & deli meats,Kennedy's Butter & Eggs on Essex St Located in the now pedestrian mall, Bill's Variety on North St. with the penny candy...up until they closed they still offered penny candy & my children would buy it of course it was 2 cents to 5 cents but they would still get a bag full, The meat store that was on Webb st . that later moved to Essex st. had the best Polish foods...the babka bread , pierogis & krushkis were to die for,I think it was called Kuzmar's does anyone know for sure ?? I remember that lower Essex St. had so many different businesses , starting with Ziggy's donuts then John's Cafe ( which was owned by my great grandfather John Olszewski )which later became Lydia's Subs owned by Obie & Lydia Obremski, then Walyo's owned by Fred Cardella for many years ( Walyo's still survives but is owned now by Rocky ) then the meat store (I believe it was Kuzmar'S ?)then John's Barber Shop, then there was some thrift store used furniture & knick knacks, then the East Branch Library, Soo-Hoo Laundry ,Armand's Variety owned by Armand Richutus, the Phillips School ( which was from 5th-8th grade) then ending with the Hawthorne Hotel & the dry cleaners across the st, boy a lot has changed over the years in what seems to be a short time.
Marie Ellis July 16, 2012 at 02:29 AM
Remember Mary's variety on hawthorn boulevard ? Nice lady, so sweet. And around the Connor, Carolann's donut shop. Donuts 5 cents a piece... 60 cents a dozen. Baked right there
maureen fry July 16, 2012 at 04:22 AM
The Polish store On Webb Street was Sobezinski's....I know I spelled it wrong :(...... Kuzmar's was on the corner of Bridge and Arbella. Does anybody remember Peg's....they were on the corner of Bridge and Barton. How about Rice's.....Bridge Street next door to Stromberg's. Those were the days!!!!!
Charlie MacIntyre July 16, 2012 at 05:18 AM
Oh yeah that was the name how could I forget...Soboczenski's, they were in 2 locations started on Webb St. then moved to a smaller spot on Essex St later & yes I do remember both Peg's & Rice's & 2 other great places I remember even though they're not small stores but were still great local shopping were Waikiki Chinese Restaurant on Bridge St. with their fancy umbrella drinks & their super sized pupu platters & fried shrimp....yummmmm & the other place I remember from years back was Almy's Warehouse at the Shetland Park loved going there at Christmas time with the huge toy dept. on the second floor that would be all decked out for the holidays & the Santa Claus they had there & then having lunch or an ice cream at the lunch counter right next to the toy dept. ..then they also had the second location in downtown & that had the Bowman's Bakery with the great cakes, bismarks & the best Italian bread & if you went on Saturday afternoon at about 3:00- 5:00 when they closed all their bakery items were 1/2 pr....yummmmm.... I'm getting hungry again & all sentimental boy those really were the good old days & we really had the best tasting food shops around not to mention Connolly's Chocolates & Fudge especially at Christmas & Easter...oh well that's another article
Shava Nerad July 16, 2012 at 05:25 AM
...and yet, there are a good number of corner stores in the Point. Curious how that works.
steve July 16, 2012 at 01:03 PM
Anyone remember Pete's? It was on leach and green st? He moved to North street and opened a bait and tackle shop.
Carol Melin Scarlett July 16, 2012 at 02:45 PM
On Webb Street, before Terry the store was owned by Mr. Huntress and after that by Mrs. Proctor who lived next door. I remember Snooky, from Kuzmar's, on Bridge Street, delivering groceries in a little red wagon. Sobie's Meat Market, Armand's, Ziggy's. And was it The Essex Cash Market at the corner of Essex and Forrester? And the little store near Collins Cove. Rizzoli's. Tassinari's. Tose were the days.
Carol Melin Scarlett July 16, 2012 at 02:54 PM
Before Terry the store on Webb was owned by Mr. Huntress. Then for a while by Mrs. Proctor who lived next door. I remember that Snooky, from Kuzmar's on Bridge Street, used to deliver groceries in a little red wagon. Sobie's, Armand's, Ziggy's, the little store near Collins Cove, Tassinari's, Rizzoli's, Loss' Market, Essex Cash Market, Gloria Chain Store on lower Essex, Essex Cleaners, Healey's Drug Store, the fellow who delivered "bleaching water", the insurance agent who came to the house to collect the premiums. The ice man, the milk man, the junk man. Mail delivered twice a day. A whole way of life. Thanks to Mr. Curley and the Salem Seniors' Writing project for preserving all the memories.
Paul A. Bouchard July 17, 2012 at 01:32 AM
I lived on Roslyn St and we would sometimes do our week's grocery shopping. I remember watching the hamburger ground to order. The Carons were a great father and son team.
Nelson Dionne December 19, 2012 at 12:23 PM
You are right on with this observation ! The owners of these small stores were an important neighborhood resource in days gone by. The position that they held in the community has never been filled to this day. Salem has a real edge up on other communities thanks to their many neighborhood associations.
Nelson Dionne December 19, 2012 at 12:25 PM
I remember Henry "Skeets" Caron well. He was a charter menber of Ste Anne's scout Troop 83 in the 30's
Nelson Dionne December 19, 2012 at 12:28 PM
At one time, Salem had so many French-Canadian variety store owners, that they had their own association ! A.E. Goulet was an important supplier to these small markets & restaurants.
Thomas Monaco March 30, 2014 at 08:45 PM
No one mentioned Multi Save on Congress Street. Owned by Orville Lehreuerux (sp) It was a very popular spot in the Point neighborhood for many families to get groceries.

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